Mathnasium’s Chief Educational Officer Larry Martinek appreciates great teachers! Larry is a teacher himself, having taught math for almost 30 years in L.A. City schools before co-founding Mathnasium in 2002. After all those years spent in the trenches, Larry knows that what it takes to BE a great teacher is both a lot simpler and a lot more complicated than you might think.
“[There are] so many different ways to teach. Some teachers, all they do is read out of a textbook. The alternative is to jump in the middle of it all, immerse oneself in the whole thing and get involved with kids. It’s from being with the kids that you learn how to teach.”
In honor of teacher appreciation week, we spent some time with Larry talking about his experience in the classroom, what makes a great teacher, the challenges facing educators today, and more.
What originally inspired you to go into teaching?
I guess it was around 4th grade realized I was pretty good at math. In 9th grade I spent all my lunch hour helping my friends with their math and algebra homework because it just came naturally to me. As I went through high school I took as many math classes as possible so I could position myself in the math world, although at that time I still wasn’t sure what that would mean or what I would become.
Then one day when I was about 21 years old, I asked my wife “How would you like to be the wife of a math teacher?” I had two years of college behind me, so I finished off my last two years and got my teaching credential. I started with L.A. City schools in 1974.
How did the experience live up to your expectations?
At that point I didn’t really have any expectations. I was fresh out of college, and everybody who’s a math major thinks they’ll teach in high school. But rarely does a brand new teacher go straight into teaching high school, seniority goes to the more experienced teachers. Instead, I ended up in an L.A. City middle school.
So I just started learning the job. Other teachers were taking night classes to get a master’s degree so they could move up the salary schedule, which is understandable. But I decided to take a different route, I decided to learn how to teach.
Tell us about a favorite memory you have of your time teaching.
Every moment that I teach, really.
One memory that stands out is in 1982 or ‘83 I was teaching in a gang diversion program, to kids who were one step away from the CA Youth Authority, and I had a kid who came up to me and said “I want you to be my teacher forever” I asked “Why is that?” He said, “Because you teach what the smart guys know.” That was really perceptive of him. He knew I wasn’t just giving him the easy stuff and blowing him off, that I was taking him and his life seriously.
Another one of the most wonderful experiences was when a group of kids I had taught in junior high, had their 30-year reunion, and they invited 6 teachers to come to the reunion. I was one of the teachers invited. To have been invited to participate in that, to know I had made an impact on them and to see how they had grown, was a wonderful point in my life. Good teachers hope to make an impact on their students, and obviously that happened.
How do you think teaching math is different than teaching other subjects? What unique skills would you say math teachers need?
I’m not clear that there are skills totally unique to math. A good teacher is a good teacher for anything that they know. The underlying things that are critical are the things that are important to teaching in general.
What would you say are the biggest challenges facing teachers today?
There’s been a raging battle in classrooms for the past 100 years: Should classrooms be homogeneous or heterogeneous? My last teaching assignment I had a class of 15 kids, and for that one class I made 7 lesson plans a day. These lesson plans were necessary, I thought, based on the varying ability levels of the students. So heterogeneous classrooms are a challenge.
Then there’s the fact that the US has never had national standards of any kind. The 10th Amendment to the Constitution says “the powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” Education is not explicitly mentioned in the constitution, so officially the federal government has no constitutional role in education, it’s left up to states. This means that what a 3rd grader does in one state could be very different than what a 3rd grader does in another state. There’s an unevenness all over the landscape. An uneven topography of preparation of teachers, and of what they are required and expected to teach.
Mathnasium curriculum supports everything that goes on in school, at every level. But math is bigger than school. It has to be. Kids with long-term success are getting private tutoring, or their parents help them, or they have someone who’s an inspiration in their life.
Do you have any advice for teachers out there right now?
At the risk of sounding trite: Fight the good fight. Whatever it takes to meet the needs of your kids, that’s what you should be doing.
Larry Martinek is the Co-Founder and Chief Instructional Officer of Mathnasium. His first teaching job was at an L.A. City middle school in 1974, where he says he “figured out pretty early that the textbook wasn’t going to work for most of my students. These seventh, eighth, and ninth-grade kids were academically at about the third-grade level. So I created my own material.” It was all these years spent teaching, creating material, training new teachers, and developing curriculum that eventually translated into co-founding Mathnasium